My Life 5.4

 Villa by the Volga - Samara and Togliatti



Note: Some of you may see similarities in my accounts here to the ‘Truckerson’ stories. I can assure you that everything here is true and happened to me.

  Samara lies in the Volga basin, near the confluence of the Samara and Volga rivers, on a bend in the giant river. It used to be called Kubyschev, after a revolutionary leader.


We pulled up at a modern, white, two-story building. Although clearly not a house, there were no markings or signs. It was tucked back between two streets of older buildings. “It was the house for visiting Party members,” Vlad told me. It wasn’t plush, so it obviously wasn’t for Senior Party members, just the middle-ranking ones I guess. But it was clean and comparatively ‘unworn’ which was unusual in Russia.

 On Sunday, we did a tour of the town. We had been to several places for meetings, transported by our hosts, but this time we went by ourselves, even though one ‘guide’ came with us to assist. In Russia, many drivers would stop for you if you waved your arm. It wasn’t a hitchhiker’s ‘thumbs’ signal,  it was a straight arm lifting from the side, waved gently up and down like the old ‘slowing down’ hand signal. What then happened was that a driver stopped, you jointly decided if he could drop you where you wanted to go (if not too far out of his way) and how much you were going to pay him. Of course, it was cheaper than a taxi, but the main reason for doing it was that there weren’t many taxis.

 We strolled in the central square. There was a fine theatre. “Under here is Stalin’s bunker.” Vlad said. “What?” I was surprised. “There is a big underground complex under the city. It was to be for the government if they had to leave Moscow in world war two.” We spent some time learning about the history, including the sad news, according to our guide, that the local beer had dropped in quality following a takeover of the brewery by a group of ‘biznessmen’. We decided to test it, just in case it had begun to improve again.

 We entered a small park. The sun shone. Flowers bloomed, birds sang. There were neat pathways, flower beds, green grass. Generally, the Russians don’t seem to think cutting grass is the thing to do and they let it grow. In the park next to the office in Moscow, you could see old women picking through the grass for bundles of herbs that grew wild there. However, in this park the grass had been cut. Numerous benches were scattered around, and old people sat in the sun, chatting.  It was lovely. At about four o’clock, we got a taxi back. We had split into two groups. Our guide was with the others and just Tom and Vlad were with me. It was such a nice day and we decided to walk from the main road, especially as we realised we did not even know the specific address to give the driver, only the nearby restaurant where we had had lunch. The taxi driver asked Vlad something. Hearing the reply, he shook his head. “What did he say?” I asked. “Oh!” Vlad replied. “He just asked why we foreigners were travelling around without any ‘locals’. He said it was ‘unwise’.” Great, I thought, becoming nervous. I suddenly became very aware of my sock. Bob had left a couple of days before and deemed me “master of the stash”, so here I was wandering about the streets of a Russian City with a thousand dollars in a plastic envelope shoved down my sock. You had to carry cash in Russia, and you didn’t leave it about anywhere, such as a hotel room. You didn’t show it to anyone, so you didn’t put it in the hotel safe. On second thoughts, it would have been wiser to spread some round everybody, but I don’t think Bob trusted anyone. If he left it with me, the supposed ‘leader’ of the team, he couldn’t be blamed if it got lost. (Believe me, Americans can be even worse than the British at internal politics in business!)

 So here was I with my thousand-dollar leg. I limped. I had strolled all around the town with no worries, now I was looking round warily. Vlad and I were dressed inconspicuously and casually, but the quality of our clothes was probably a giveaway. But Tom, another American, had dressed for tourism. He had gleaming white trainers and short white socks, branded open neck shirt, a big technicoloured belt pouch and worst of all, white shorts! We stood out a mile. I felt exposed, hunted, as I limped the grey streets.

 We couldn’t find the place! We didn’t know its name, or the streets it was behind. We had been sure we could walk straight back to it but now it all looked the same. Great blocks of buildings, giant downspouts ending four feet above the pavement, occasionally a grey phone box on a wall, often wrecked - it was all the same, like the background in a computer game. After walking round the block four times, we were desperate. A couple came along, pushing a child in a push-chair. Vlad approached them. After a short conversation, he smiled. “Yes!” he said triumphantly. “He says he helped build it!” The couple took us to the door of our lodgings - it was not that far away. Now Tom’s belt came into its own. Unzipping the pouch, he pulled out some chocolate bars, handing them to the delighted couple and the child to show our thanks. We waved goodbye!  

 Later, as the sun was still warm, I went out on my own and sat in a small park nearby, people-watching. When I visit new places, I always do this. You learn an awful lot about people generally by just watching what they do. Sometimes it’s very surprising. In Europe I actually found Germans to be the ‘strangest’ people in terms of behaviour, definitely stranger than the Russians! I sat in the Park, thinking of our sightseeing tour that day. It was funny, but Samara, a City of well over a million people, somehow felt like a small town by the Volga.


One of the main industries in Samara at the time was aerospace. We visited a Company that made aircraft. Russian airframes are respected for good design and quality - their engines were not so well regarded. So there was a big trade in westerners buying small Russian aircraft, and fitting western engines. This company made new aircraft, mostly for Arabs. They showed us photos and plans of the interiors. They were luxurious! Some had a dozen beds in a separate compartment for the wives. The company was doing well.

 Our host in Samara was Oleg, the Head Man of the business that was our potential partner. His ‘Deputy’ was introduced, whose role was unclear. The other main character was Andre, Oleg’s Operations Manager, who made all the arrangements for us and drove us around in his car, which had a telephone, with the others following with his second-in-command. He was very proud of the telephone, shouting into it as we drove along.

 Oleg was a nice guy who seemed reasonable and genuine. But he did hold a powerful position. In his office, on the wall was a ‘secret map’ showing all the communication (road, rail, telephone etc) in the whole area. Samara was the centre. “You would never have been allowed to see that in the old days” He said, smiling, and gave me a small copy. His Deputy smiled a lot and always wore dark glasses. Sometimes he came to meetings, sometimes he didn’t. Andre, our nemesis, definitely did not like foreigners, made sure we knew he was not impressed by us and disbelieved almost everything we said, always suspecting a trick. In other words - a typical engineer. (I recognise the type, having been one myself in my youth).

 Samara had a tradition of dealing with the West long before the Soviet break-up. The area was never closed to foreigners. Their eyes were on the world beyond the Soviet Empire. The local saying was that the east bank of the Volga was Russian, where Samara sat, and the west bank was in the West. Apart from the mighty Volga River, Samara has a good road connection to Moscow (a two lane concrete highway) and an efficient railway. The airport was about an hour’s drive north. Another hour’s drive north-west from the airport was Togliatti, a city of well over half a million people. The two cities together made a formidable centre for industry and business. The present Togliatti was founded in 1964, and was a special economic area – a Soviet experiment. Instead of the old Soviet traditional managers, ( many alcoholic and supported by deputies in both senses of the word), young, dynamic entrepreneurial people were selected and sent to Toglatti. The whole focus was international. There were at least two major car factories in the area (Lada and the VAZ group) and several International Banks. It was, and still is among the areas with the highest average standard of living in Russia.

  We had arranged for some of us to visit the City. Our hosts lined up two very nice cars. One was a big Russian limo. The second was a smart, new, Japanese car with black windows. I travelled in the first with Oleg, Andre, and Elvira, my translator. The others went in the second, which turned out to be the Oleg’s deputy’s car. We met the Deputy Mayor, sitting under a picture of Lenin in his office. He took us to lunch at a holiday centre outside the town, which had been built for city employees. It was by the Volga, and had its own pool as well.

 After a pleasant lunch, with vodka, brandy, champagne and speeches (you have to down the whole glass after each toast, and there are many), we waved farewell. “You will come with me!” The Deputy ‘requested’ firmly. Motioning to Elvira, he led us to the car with the black windows, and we sped away. He told me pleasantly how he ‘knew magic’ and could see things. “Oh yes?” I smiled. “You have an excellent aura, very strong, very good.” Elvira translated. I looked at her. She seemed neither surprised, nor perturbed. “Would you like to know when you will die?” He asked me. “Er, no thanks, I’d rather it was surprise.” He laughed. “We shall be friends!” Elvira nodded encouragingly as she translated. Apparently this was good news. “Do not worry.” He said mysteriously. I did.

 We passed over a bridge on the junction of the Samara River and the Volga. As I looked down, I could see dozens of sizeable boats tied up. All was still – no activity.  Later, when my ‘friend’ said, “we have some problems.” I replied, “yes, I know. Has the river transport system collapsed completely?” As soon as this was translated, he came back, quick as a flash.

 “How did you know that?”

 I explained to him what I had seen. “Oh.” He seemed to relax. “Very perceptive.” He motioned to the driver, and the car stopped on a rise overlooking the Volga.

 “Come with me.” My new friend requested firmly.

 He led me to the edge of a steep drop. Elvira was smiling, looking around happily. Perhaps it was the vodka? Had I said the wrong thing?

  “Look” my ‘friend’ said, pointing. Across the Volga was a row of hills, rising high.

 “These are the Jiguli hills. The Pearl of Russia” Elvira added.

 “This is where the raw materials for the factories come from.” My friend put his arm round me. I tensed. “When we do business together, you will have a Villa there. I shall make sure.” Elvira looked positively encouraging, nodding while she translated.

 Thankyou!” Was all I could manage to say. We returned to the car.



I was told that many Russians travelled to Samara to collect their new Ladas, partially to ensure they got what they ordered. On every highway in Russia, the traffic police had big gates they could swing across and block the road. There were always crowds of anonymous men hanging round these areas. I was told that they stopped every proud new Lada owner driving away from the city for payment of a local ‘tax’ on his purchase.

 I did like that road though. It was a source of one of my more obscure jokes, which I still love. About the only signpost I saw on it was massive. It showed the road curving slightly to the left, marked ‘Moscow’ and a turn off to the right marked Ufa (capital of the Bashkirian Republic, to the East of Samara).  At the junction, I saw the road curve off over a high bridge. “Ah!” I said. “A bridge t’Ufa!” Even the Americans didn’t get the joke. Soon after, we were nearly killed when a lump of concrete appeared on the lane we were travelling in, just as we were speeding past some giant trucks. A short detour onto the central reservation, a few seconds going sideways, dirt flying in clouds behind us and we were off again, pace never slowing. Russians always told me they were great drivers and proved it by driving as fast as possible, given half a chance.

 The airport was fun! There was a terminal – fifties-style, I guess (many things in Soviet Russia seemed to have stopped in the fifties). Stained plywood, black and silver, black leatherette seats, spindly tubular furniture, all grimy – and all very familiar by now. But it did have an International departure gate – swish! However, we foreigners had to go to a building on the outskirts of the airport area, sitting in a sea of tall, Russian lawn, waist high. And we had to go to the third floor to get our tickets stamped and get a boarding pass. Then we drove back to the terminal and amazingly, walked aboard our flight. It was only an hour or two to Moscow and we only had one small problem on the way. Before we had boarded, Vlad volunteered to get us some lunch. I surreptitiously pulled a few dollars from my sock for him. As we sat on the plane, we devoured some very nice smoked fish, plump and juicy. We had all taken a piece from the big slab of fish. About half an hour into the flight, Vlad reached into the locker and pulled out a clear plastic bag. We took one look, then stared at him accusingly. We discovered that he had bought some hot roast chicken, and some ice cream. He’d put them in the same bag. Although he claimed vanilla-flavoured chicken was excellent, the rest of us decided the fish was sufficient. We were anticipating one of ‘those’ landings again, so it was wiser to be careful, we guessed.

 I had seen another, different, part of Russia.

 ‘Interesting’ is a useful word.


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